Recently, The Chronicle of Higher Education reported on an Oklahoma degree mill that helped athletes maintain the grade eligibility requirements.

Via Instapundit: With more online programs being offered in response to more cost-effective education, Kevin Carey, who directs the education policy program at the New America Foundation, offers an innovative solution to problems that include grade inflation and puff coursework.

Much attention has been paid to for-profit colleges that offer degrees online while exploiting federal student-loan programs and saddling ill-prepared students with debt. But nearly all of the institutions caught up in the 10-day credit dodge exposed by The Chronicle were public, nonprofit institutions. And both the credit-givers, like Western Oklahoma, and the sports machines at the other end of the transaction, like Florida State University, were doing nothing illegal.

A main reason the scandal persists is that our system is built around the strange idea of the “credit hour,” a unit of academic time that does little to measure student learning. The credit hour originated around the turn of the 20th century, when the industrialist-turned-philanthropist Andrew Carnegie moved to create a pension system for college professors. (It’s now known as TIAA-CREF.) Pensions were reserved for professors who worked full time, which ended up being defined as a minimum of 12 hours of classroom teaching per week in a standard 15-week semester.

Carey offers the following observations and recommendations:

The rapid migration of higher education online exacerbates these problems. The notion of recording academic progress by counting the number of hours students spend sitting in a classroom is nonsensical when there is no actual classroom. Perhaps students themselves will decide what constitutes quality, as they choose among the so-called “massive online open courses” being offered free by brand-name universities including Harvard, M.I.T. and Stanford. I suspect those courses that will be most valued will be those where students actually learn.

But the most promising solution would be to replace the anachronistic credit hour with common standards for what college students actually need to know and to be able to do. There are many routes to doing this. In the arts and sciences, scholarly associations could define and update what it means to be proficient in a field. So could professional organizations and employers in vocational and technical fields.

Ending the antiquated credit hour would not only avert abuses involving college sports, but also prevent students of all kinds from taking the path of least resistance toward degrees that may be ultimately worthless.